Jack Palance looked like no movie star before him. In an era of handsome leading men he was an original.
One of classic Hollywood’s greatest villains, the actor had the facial features and manner for the part. Richard Widmark, Palance’s costar in in 1950’s Panic In The Streets — his movie debut — once remarked that he was the only actor who really frightened him.
Born Volodymyr Palahniuk of immigrant Ukranian parents in Pennsylvania coal country in 1919, Palance’s famous mug survived early stints in the local mines, followed by a fairly extensive tour as a professional boxer (at least 15 straight victories, 12 by knockout).
His subsequent military tour in the early Forties centrally figured in what became something of a Hollywood mystery about the actor’s face.
Palance enlisted in the then U.S. Army Air Force, and found himself on a B-24 training flight out of the Davis Monthon air base in Tucson, Az. The plane caught fire and Palance, his face severely burned, was forced to bail out. Several surgeries were reportedly required before Palance was discharged in 1944. That, at least, how the story went.
Thus, those distinctive cheekbones and deep-set eyes pictured above were the attributed to extensive reconstructive surgery.
But, but, but — Palance towards the end of his career (he died in 2006 at age 87) threw cold water on the whole thing. He said the whole burning crash story was a phony, dreamed up by studio press agents.
One flack created the legend that I had been blown up in an air crash during the war, and my face had to be put back together by way of plastic surgery, Palance is quoted as saying. If it is a ‘bionic face,’ why didn’t they do a better job of it?
Take a look at the photo below of an older Jack Palance. You decide.
Palance was Oscar nominated twice and won once in the best supporting actor category (1991’s City Slickers). But perhaps his oddest screen appearance came in 1963 in the European-made Le Mepris (Contempt) directed by Jean-Luc Godard.
Somehow, Godard’s name is an odd fit with that of Jack Palance, much less with the movie’s female star, Brigitte Bardot. Additionally, Contempt was shot in lush Italian locations in glossy Cinemascope, and was coproduced by Joseph E. Levine, the Boston schlockmeister (1959’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters!) who went on to become one of Hollywood’s most ambitious independent producers.
The story based on an Alberto Moravia novel is about a frustrated playwright (Michel Piccoli) hired to write the script for a movie based loosely on Homer’s Odyssey. But Contempt is really about the making of a movie within the movie, and about the dissolution of a marriage between Piccoli and Bardot.
Palance appears to be the odd man out in the cast — which included director Fritz Lang — the only one speaking English as opposed to French or German. Palance’s character is that of a philistine Hollywood producer, bumptious and ignorant at the same time. He seduces the Bardot character at pays for it at the film’s end.
Enough to say that Contempt showcases Godard’s inventive direction, as well as an absolutely sublime musical score by George Delerue. It’s a beauty of a picture and one of Jack Palance’s most remarkable screen performances.